One week after a midterm election in which his party suffered a historic defeat, it is still unclear whether President Obama will adjust his policies to deal with the voters’ unease over his administration’s record. But one change is already apparent. After several months of pursuing a charm offensive with American Jews and supporters of Israel, Obama has reverted to a stance that caused many Jewish Democrats such unease earlier this year: bashing Israel for asserting the right of Jews to live in Jerusalem.
Obama chose to use his visit to his former home in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, as the venue for comments directly criticizing Israel for approving the building of 1,000 new housing units in the Har Homa section of Jerusalem. The State Department spokesman had previously criticized the plan, but this is clearly an attempt to escalate the dispute with Israel from a pro forma disagreement — the United States has never recognized the city’s unification in 1967 — into a major battle with the Jewish state.
Back in the spring, Obama had seized upon an innocuous announcement of housing starts in an established Jewish neighborhood in a part of Jerusalem that had been occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 that was issued during a visit to Israel by Vice President Biden, claiming it was an “insult” to the United States. The ensuing argument and attempts at the public humiliation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did nothing to advance the peace process. Even if the Palestinians were to reverse their repeated refusals to make peace and accept a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a portion of Jerusalem (an offer that Israel has made more than once in the past decade), there is no possibility that those areas where Jewish neighborhoods now exist (and where over 250,000 Jews live) would be turned over to the Palestinians. His dispute with Netanyahu had the effect of forcing the Palestinian Authority to harden its stance on Jerusalem, thus making an accord even more unlikely.
Obama’s stance on Jerusalem was unprecedented in U.S.-Israel relations: although the United States had never recognized Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city in 1967, it had also never treated the building of Jewish neighborhoods there as a point of dispute between the two countries in this manner. However, Obama soon understood that not only had he not undermined Netanyahu (whose defense of Jewish rights was popular among Israelis), but he was also alienating part of his own political base: American Jews. While some in the administration had initially listened to the siren song of J Street, which falsely claimed that most American Jews would applaud a policy of pressure on Israel, it soon became clear that Obama’s stance was hurting the Democratic Party. The result of this realization was a furious effort to charm American Jews and supporters of Israel. The attacks on Netanyahu ceased, and the administration was soon issuing statements that noted the obvious about the stalled talks: the Palestinians were the ones who weren’t serious about peace.
But now that the election is over, Obama is back to his old tricks, seizing upon an announcement that can have no impact on any theoretical peace deal in order to pander to a Muslim world that seeks Israel’s destruction. By making a statement about Jerusalem while in Indonesia, Obama is signaling that the United States regards Jewish Jerusalem as being no different from the most remote settlement in the West Bank: an illegal outpost that must be destroyed and its inhabitants removed. Such a statement helps fuel the Arab irredentism that has been the primary obstacle to peace since Israel’s birth in 1948.
Obama’s pandering to the Muslim world is also a signal to Jewish Democrats that their party’s leader is once again throwing Israel under the bus in pursuit of popularity in the Third World. While the majority of Jews stayed loyal to the Democrats this fall even in the midst of a Republican wave, the president’s speedy post-election reversion to Israel-bashing should remind them that this administration is still bent on distancing itself from the Jewish state. Just as Obama’s statements about Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign proved to be mere rhetoric, now that the charm offensive is officially over, Jewish Democrats need to acknowledge that they were hoodwinked again.